Archive for ‘Food Systems & Politics’

February 2, 2012

Why We Shouldn’t Drink Bottled Water

I put “Tapped” on my Netflix cue over a year ago when I first read its brief description.  Bottled water is not good for the environment.  I knew that.  I also knew plastic causes cancer.  That’s probably why I put off watching this documentary.

Do not put off watching this documentary.  Watch it now.  And then tell all your friends to watch it.  Here is a preview:

First: Yes, “Tapped” is a one-sided documentary.  This is because the other side refused to interview for the film.

Okay, we got that out of the way.  The movie begins in rural Maine, where Poland Springs pumps Fryeburg’s municipal water into its bottles (Poland Springs is owned by Nestle, which owns Arrowhead, Calistoga, Deer Park, Ice Mountain, Nestle Pure Life, Ozarka, and Zephyrhills as well).  According to the interviews, residents were not made aware that the bottling company had requested and received permits until they began pumping.

My first reaction to this was that it was not news to me.  Then they said that bottling companies are selling bottled water at 1,900 times the price they are paying for the raw material.  I knew it was a significant margin of profit, and obviously there are other overhead costs, but seriously: 1,900 times the price???

But I did have my doubts about this film still at this point.  I root for the little guy.  But in the pond of little guys, there are little guys and there are smaller little guys.  These residents of Fryeburg, Maine were coming together and fighting the water industry.  They had the support of resident Jim Wilfong, a former cabinet member of the Clinton Administration. The average household income is $54,000 a year (for an average of around 2.2 people per household).


In other words, the democratic system was on their side.  What surprised me is this: they are still losing.


And not only they are losing.  The film continues down the Eastern Seaboard to North Carolina and Georgia, where droughts are occurring at the same time as Coca Cola and Pepsi are quite literally pumping the wells dry.  Next the film turns to Corpus Cristi, Texas, where the oil refineries produce the plastics that become the bottles we drink out of.  And here the story really turned into the sad case of the weak being preyed upon by the mighty: people who purchased their homes years ago when they received local jobs (not necessarily at the refinery) are now sick with all kinds of ailments due to the harmful particles in the air produced by the refinery.  They cannot sell their homes, because no one will buy a home nowadays that is so close to an oil refinery.  They are sick, and they are stuck next to the thing that is making them sick.  It is an Erin Brokovich tale without a happy ending.



Until this point, I could see the average bottled water consumer’s response might be “Well, this doesn’t affect me.  It affects communities far far away from me.”  or “It won’t affect me for a very long time.”

Let me now share with you the film’s opening statistics:  over 75% of the Earth is covered in water but only 1% of it is drinkable.  By 2030 two out of three people will not have access to potable water.

That means, statistically speaking, in only seventeen years, the people sitting to the left and to the right of you will not have water.  Scratch that: YOU likely won’t have water.

Okay.  Now that we’ve clarified this, let’s go back to the 50-minute mark of the film.  We all by now likely know that BPA is bad for us.  Very very bad for us.  While individual water bottles don’t have BPA in them, the 5-gallon water cooler is made of BPA plastics.

Let’s go back to that opening statistic again: likely your place of work has a water cooler. It is also likely that it is filled with a BPA 5-gallon jug.  Is this water potable? Although the FDA and EPA standards say that those jugs are safe (based off of 2 industry-funded studies reported to them for analysis), there are over 200 independently published, peer-reviewed studies raising concerns about BPA.  One study has indicated that even incredibly minor amounts of BPA can substantially damage human organ development and reproductive system. Potable water?  I think not.

Lastly, let me briefly touch on their discussion of waste, because it’s what gave the producers the idea to make this movie.  I want to talk about this in more detail on the blog here, but here’s a start.

There are trash pits all over our world’s oceans.  Two in the Pacific, two in the Atlantic, one in the Indian Ocean.  There are likely similar gyres in every ocean in the world.  Captain Charles Moore’s tests of water in the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch showed in 1999 that there was 6 times as much plastic in the waters as plankton (which feeds marine life).  In 2008, there was 46 times as much plastic.   That is almost 8 times as much plastic accumulating in our ocean in only 9 years.



If you’ve made it this far, and you only remember one thing from this blog post that reads more like an activist platform than an informative post, remember this quote from Captain Charles Moore standing on plastic-strewn Kamilo Beach in Hawaii, where trash is washed up by the currents:

“Eliminating the scourge of bottled water will eliminate one of the biggest environmental problems that we face.”

It’s that simple. We can’t undo the damage that is done, but we can stop more from happening.  This isn’t global warming where the cause and effects are murky.  The solution is right in front of us: stop using bottled water.

Recycling is not enough.  Only 50% of Americans have curbside recycling, and in the US only 1/3 of the 80 million bottles used daily are recycled.

So here’s the takeaway for you: don’t drink bottled water except in disaster situations and when there is no otherwise safe water to drink.  Drink your tap water. Filter it if you need to.  Bottled water and the industries it supports (ahem – oil – ahem) do not only hurt your health, it hurts the health of your environment, the world’s environment, your municipal works, and your own access to safe, potable tap water.


For more information on the film “Tapped” visit:   This is an independent review not supported, requested, or sponsored by the film or its affiliates.

January 24, 2012

Food Labeling and TEDx Manhattan: Changing the Way We Eat

This past weekend, TEDx Manhattan hosted a day-long symposium on our food system.  If you’ve been following my twitter feed, you’ll know that I attended a viewing party hosted by Boston University’s Gastronomy program.  The event has given me many things to think about, and much to share with you here on the blog.  Today I want to start with something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time: food labeling.



Urvashi Rangan is a senior scientist and director of Consumer Reports’  Her talk focused on why labels mean close to nothing in the United States, and here are some of the main points that I took away:

To preface, I consider myself an excessive label reader.  I probably spend twice as long in the grocery store as the average person because I’m not only trying to figure out what to buy but also analyzing labels and trying to figure out the marketing tactics behind them.  I am fascinated by labels. And I am constantly confounded by them.

Rangan stated that research shows consumers will pay more for better (i.e. clearer) labeling, but that they are also easily and constantly mislead by the labeling that exists.  Case in point: a consumer’s goal may be to purchase the best quality food that won’t make them sick.  Due to the way labels are promoted, people confuse “natural” and “organic” all the time, and many will even value the term “natural” over “organic.”

Here’s the clincher: the label “natural” has no industry guidelines.  Any company can use the term with whatever intended definition they want.  However, the label “organic” has been defined by the USDA in 600 pages.  So why are we still even paying attention to “natural?”  Because marketing companies have created a value in the term, and we’ve fallen for it because we (understandably) don’t have the resources available to us to know not to.

Rangan also told an example of Creekstone Beef requesting the use of clarifying labeling that was denied by the USDA.  A few years ago, Japan refused to import US beef because it was not being tested for Mad Cow disease.  Creekstone wanted to test its beef and label it tested in order to continue export to Japan.  The USDA refused, saying the test Creekstone wanted to use was not sufficient to determine the presence of the disease.  Guess what?  It is the exact same test the USDA uses to determine the presence of Mad Cow Disease in the US market.

The takeaway here is that we need more clarification, and laws, on labeling our foods.  It should be clear to me what the difference is between a carton of eggs that says “free range” and one that says “cage-free.”  Furthermore, if a carton shows a picture of a hen in a pasture, this should be an accurate visual description of the conditions in which these eggs were laid.

The question I pose today is: aside from paying  a premium for foods labeled “organic” (a term which Rangan says is the most reliable label we have, but which still has its own problems and limitations), what can we consumers do to ensure that we are not being ripped off by labels?

October 24, 2011

Occupy: Food

Sarah Khan, founder and director of The Tasting Cultures Foundation, has made a fascinating short video of the food tent at Occupy Wall Street.  Things that jumped out at me were:

  • their concern for food safety (a local school has donated cold storage space, they only prepare simple foods like sandwiches and salads on the premises, and they serve fresh foods right away, with rubber gloves – yay!)
  • the speed and regularity of donations – every ten minutes!
  • the massive amounts of coolers – woah
  • All. Those. Vegetables!!!
  • Compost!
  • the cardboard sign: “Please keep clean, neat and organized so we can work” – every kitchen serving lots of people needs to abide by the tenets of clean, neat, and organized – kudos to the kitchen activists at Occupy Wall Street!

[vimeo w=400&h=225]

Honestly, this looks like somewhat-organized-chaos.  But really, what kitchen isn’t (okay, besides Thomas Keller’s)?  What’s so cool is how many people are coming together to fuel the movement.  Occupy Wall Street is proving that a kitchen can be anywhere, even in the middle of a social protest in a public park in one of the world’s largest cities.

Mark Bittman linked on twitter today to Michele Simon’s blog post on what to do after Food Day is over (by the way, did you know today is the first annual Food Day? Well, it is!) by arguing that we should all join the Occupy movement, because after all a lot of the problems in our food system are due to the corporate take-over of the food system.  Hm.  I guess so, but it’s hard to say that the Occupy movement is about abolishing the corporate world – it sounds like to me it’s more about reigning in corporate power.  And if that’s what Simon is saying about Food Day activists joining the Occupy movement in order to reign in corporate power on the food system, then by all means – yes please!  I’d love to see vertical integration disappear, or at least be turned into something sustainable for our resources, the farmers at the bottom of the heap, and the consumers – not only the “Big Ag” companies.

What do you think? How are Occupy movements in your area fueling themselves?

October 5, 2011

On Community Gardens, Meat, and the Power of Knowledge

A few years ago I read a book called My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki.  The novel follows a documentary filmmaker, Jane Takagi-Little, who is hired by the American beef industry to create a show for Japanese housewives called “My American Wife.”  She travels the United States and films women cooking with meat (the producers tell her to keep in mind while choosing material that “Pork is Possible, but Beef is Best!”).  However, as Jane gets more involved in the project, she gets more concerned about the product she’s selling to Japan, and starts investigating.  She researches how the animals are raised, the antibiotics used, the slaughtering process.  Needless to say, it is not a pretty picture.  And although this is a novel, the research Ozeki did was based on current practices in the US meat industry.

Growing up, I always thought veal was the only animal that wasn’t humanely raised.  As it turns out, in some cases veal can actually be raised humanely and that chicken, beef, and pork are just as inhumanely raised as traditional veal.  Basically, there is no winning.  Other than knowing where your food comes from.

September 25, 2011

Bread and Hen of the Woods

I’ve been working on a big project over here at Beyond Burgers and Bratwurst.  You may have noticed on the right-hand navigation that I’ve added a twitter account (I have entered into the world of twitter, it is no longer safe!).  If you’re on twitter, you can follow me @beyondburgers.  I’ll see you there!

But even more exciting (I know, what can be more exciting than twitter??) is what I’ve been up to in my kitchen this weekend.  I really want to share with you.  But I can’t.  Not yet.

Tomorrow, I promise!

In the meantime, I will leave you with some delicious photographs I took this week.  My sister flew in from Germany on Wednesday.  She brought along a surprise:

Brezeln!  But that’s not all.  My sister knows I love German bread.  So she also brought my favorite bread from one of my family’s favorite German bakeries: Fünf Korn Quark Brot from Gauker!

This bread is a whole wheat bread, with a moist crumb thanks to a fresh cheese called quark, and a delicious crust covered in seeds (sunflower, poppy, and sesame seeds mostly).  It is so flavorful and delicious.  I can eat it with just cheese and be happy as a clam.

Also, yesterday I went to the farmers market to pick up my monthly meat CSA.  I saw these mushrooms and couldn’t resist!  Hen of the Woods are native to North America (and Japan, where it is known as Maitake).

It also goes by the name of Signorina mushroom in Italian-American communities.  It is delicious.  The farmer said that it grew on their farm, and although it was pricey ($20 a pound!) I decided it was okay to splurge.  And besides, my local coop sells shiitake mushrooms for $17 a pound.  This isn’t much more, and certainly a lot fresher!

Hen of the Woods are incredibly hard to wash, and I’m afraid it was still a bit gritty when I was finished cooking with it.  But who can blame me?  It even came with a bit of moss!  It was still excellent.

I hope you’re all enjoying your Sundays too.  I promise to share more details tomorrow!